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"Supersize Polyphony"

Armonico Consort (Christopher Monks); Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge (Geoffrey Webber); Adrian France, sackbut

rec: July 8 - 10, 2018, Cambridge, St George's Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD560 (© 2018) (61'37")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

HILDEGARD of Bingen (1098-1179): Ave generosa; O virtus sapientiae; O vos felices radices; Spiritus Sanctus vivicans; plainchant: Spem in alium; Alessandro STRIGGIO (c1536/37-1592): Ecce beatam lucem a 40; Missa sopra Ecco di beato giorno a 40-60; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): O nata lux a 5; Spem in alium a 40

Although the practice of antiphonal singing is as old as the Christian Church, what was happening in Venice in the 16th century was entirely new. Composers started to write music for two choirs of four voices each; this technique has become known as cori spezzati. In the course of the century, the number of voices was extended: in the oeuvre of the two Gabrielis, Andrea and his nephew Giovanni, we find pieces for sixteen voices, split into four choirs. In the next century even larger-scale works were created: the German composer Michael Praetorius published sacred concertos for up to 21 voices. In 17th-century Italy, Rome and Bologna were centres of what musicologists have called 'colossal baroque'. One of its exponents was Orazio Benevoli. The most famous work of this kind is the Missa Salisburgensis for 53 voices, which once was attributed to Benevoli, but is now generally considered to be from the pen of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

However, in the 16th century one composer already extended the number of voices to 40. Alessandro Striggio composed his motet Ecce beatam lucem probably in 1561; in 1568 it was performed in Munich at the occasion of the marriage of Duke Albrecht IV of Bavaria, under the direction of Orlandus Lassus. According to Christopher Monks, in his liner-note to the disc under review here, Striggio travelled across Europe with this piece, "allegedly with all 40 part books strapped to the rear end of a donkey!".

Striggio was born and died in Mantua and was one of the main composers of madrigals and music for the stage in the second half of the 16th century. On the title-pages of his publications he is referred to as gentilhuomo, emphasizing his aristocratic roots. In 1559 he entered the service of Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence. He excelled on various instruments, such as the viol, the lute and the lirone. He developed into the main court composer and contributed to the intermedi which were performed at the occasion of the marriage of Cosimo's heir Francesco and Joanna of Austria in 1565. When Cosimo was crowned Grand Duke of Tuscany in Rome in 1570, Striggio composed a madrigal for 12 voices in three choirs. From this, we may conclude that he had a special liking of polychorality.

Further evidence of that is the Missa Ecco di beato giorno, which is also scored for 40 voices, but whose number of parts is extended to 60 in the Agnus Dei. It is only one of three sacred works by Striggio that have come down to us. Whether he has written more, is not known, but it seems likely that madrigals and music for the stage were his main interests. Like his motet, his mass was performed at various places in Europe. In 1568 he wrote to Francesco de Medici, son of his employer, that his mass had been performed in Paris at the court of Charles IX. It is also in Paris that the only known copy of this work has been preserved. The performing forces are divided into five choirs of eight voices each.

The combination of these two works by Striggio with Thomas Tallis's unique 40-part motet Spem in alium seems a logical decision, and has been practised before. Apart from the similarity in the number of parts, it is often assumed that there is a connection between the two motets. On his travels, Striggio also visited England and it is thought that at this occasion he met Tallis. As Striggio was keen to perform his motet at every possible occasion, Tallis may have heard it, and this may have inspired him to write his motet Spem in alium. The booklet quotes a note by a contemporary which suggests that a Duke - probably the Duke of Norfolk - challenged Tallis to show that English composers were able to surpass their Italian counterparts. The authenticity of this story is not universally accepted, though. Other theories are that the motet was first performed at the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's 40th birthday in 1573, or that it had been composed for her predecessor, Mary Tudor.

How to perform these works? In Italy, it was common practice to use instruments, although mostly at special occasions. In this particular case, the addition of instruments playing colla parte would result in an ensemble of monumental proportions. As a result, the transparency - which is a big problem in such large-scale works anyway - would become almost impossible to achieve. One could also use instruments as substitute for some of the voices. In his report from Paris, to which I referred above, Striggio only speaks about singers and makes no mention of instrumentalists. Here the singers are supported by a bass sackbut in both works from Striggio's pen. Christopher Monks mentions various ways of performing, but does not specify why this line-up has been chosen. As one may expect, the sackbut is hardly audible in places where the full ensemble is in action. From that angle, it does not substantially contribute to the performance.

As I mentioned, the transparency is problematic with performances like this one. Only in passages for a reduced number of voices it is possible to understand the text. However, when composers decided to write for such large forces, this aspect was probably not very much on their mind. In a mass setting, it may have mattered even less, as the text was commonly known. In this performance, the transparency is further compromised by the clearly audible vibrato across the ensemble. I find that hard to swallow anyway, for historical, stylistic and aesthetic reasons, but here it has a damaging effect on the impact of these works.

Even in the plainchant version of Spem in alium and in the pieces by Hildegard of Bingen, the soloists don't avoid vibrato. The inclusion of some of the latter's compositions in this programme is rather odd anyway. No reason for that is given in the booklet; Hildegard is not even mentioned.

Fortunately, the two pieces by Striggio and Tallis's motet are available in better recordings. As far as Striggio is concerned, his motet and mass were recorded by Hervé Niquiet (Glossa, 2012) and by Robert Hollingworth (Decca, 2011). Both recordings are preferable. The present performances are a missed opportunity.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Armonico Consort
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

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